The evening air is becoming crisp, the leaves will soon be turning, the geese are moving, and in front of televised football games in houses all across the country, enjoyable conversations will lapse into awkward silence when a child asks: “What is erectile dysfunction?”.
We have lived with these ads, known in the pharmaceutical industry as “Direct To Consumer” (DTC) ads, since about 1997, when the FDA loosened restrictions on advertising drugs via radio and television. The drug companies began advertising, and quickly discovered something that many other industries have known for decades: Advertising works.
One analysis of DTC advertising estimates that the top 25 drug advertisers add $1.40 in operating income for every dollar spent on advertising. In 2008, Erectile Dysfunction drug manufacturers spent over $313 million on measured media, according to TNS Media Intelligence. By Nielson measurements, the entire DTC advertising spend in 2008 was $4.3 billion – second only to the automobile industry. And in one study, published in the Public Library of Science, it was estimated that the pharmaceutical companies spent nearly twice as much on advertising as they did on Research and Development, which probably makes it hard for sick people to get into the spirit of the latest Viva Viagra commercial.
That means we will be seeing these ads for the foreseeable future, and that has many viewers – including me – questioning why we have so little control over what types of ads we see, and when we see them.
Advertising, and its role in our lives, is undergoing huge fundamental shifts. It struck me recently that among many advertising models, two have recently emerged which could not be more different. The first model, which I’ll simply call the “Spam” model, uses the no cost method of email to flood our in-boxes with all sorts of messages. Many of us find these intrusive and irritating. Since the senders are frequently overseas, and the messages themselves are often fraud attempts disguised as an advertisement, they are difficult to regulate.
The other model is what I will call the “No Call List” model, where the intrusiveness of telemarketing calls caused a backlash, and we can now enroll ourselves in a program which eliminates many of the phone calls we receive from telemarketers. The Spam advertiser says “I am in control”. The No Call List advertiser says “You are in control”. And that brings us to the issue of the drug companies who advertise erectile dysfunction drugs, as well as the “male enhancement” scams which also cause parents everywhere to pull a muscle as they lunge for the remote. Both are examples of high-dollar Spam advertisers who tell us that they are in control – not us.
The backlash has been growing, and has led to efforts to curb these advertisements. In addition to increased oversight and control from the FDA, there are efforts in Congress to restrict the ED ads. One example is the Families for ED Advertising Decency Act (H.R. 2175), introduced by Rep. James Moran (D-Va). The legislation calls for these ads to be treated as indecent and restricted between the hours of 6am and 10pm. I spoke with Rep. Moran’s office, and they said the bill will remain active for the rest of this Congress, and they were actively seeking co-sponsors. I did not receive a response from Rep. Kagen’s office if Congressman Kagen would support this legislation or not, but I hope he does.
As you might expect, given the dollars being spent on these ads, and the impact on the bottom line, the ad industry and the pharmaceutical industry have over 300 million reasons why they want to minimize any legislation or FDA regulation on the timing and appropriateness of these ads.
In most cases, I tend toward a free-market bias in questions related to the pharmaceutical industry. For all its excesses, the researchers and employees of these companies have helped all of us live longer, healthier lives. I’m happy for the drug companies to be profitable, as these profits drive growth and research.
This is one area, however, where they have stepped over the line. People should not be forced to hear about private matters based upon the desired timing and profit motive of the companies themselves. Let’s leave Levitra for the late night, and spend our daytime hours answering other penetrating questions from children, such as: “What is Restless Leg Syndrome?”.
Published September 2009